Uncomfortable thoughts about “uncomfortable learning”

Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University — in an article for the Washington Post called “Why my campus needs ‘safe spaces'” — presents paragraph after paragraph of pernicious nonsense about race in the higher education context. By doing so, however, he provides a service; he demonstrates how perniciously nonsensical the prevailing campus racial paradigm has become.

Schapiro centers his discussion on the following episode that he says occurred at another college:

A group of black students were [sic] having lunch together in a campus dining hall. There were a couple of empty seats, and two white students asked if they could join them. One of the black students asked why, in light of empty tables nearby. The reply was that these students wanted to stretch themselves by engaging in the kind of uncomfortable learning the college encourages. The black students politely said no.

“Is this really so scandalous,” Schapiro asks.

I suspect that the white students were either having a laugh or conducting an experiment when they asked the black students for an experience in “uncomfortable learning.” If so, then it made sense for the black students to decline.

Even if the two whites were indoctrinated to the point that they genuinely sought an “uncomfortable learning” in this fashion, the black group was well within its rights to turn them down. People shouldn’t have to eat lunch with folks they would prefer not to eat with.

Imagine, though, that the races were reversed — that is, imagine that black students had asked to eat with a group of whites and been turned down. Such an episode would likely make a list of grievances by black students complaining about campus racism and demanding, say, mandatory sensitivity training and more African-American professors.

This is a double standard and, as such, should be rejected. But if there were to be a double standard, then arguably it should run the other way.

Every white student on campus, other than some “legacies” and perhaps the offspring of friends or relatives of the college brass, is likely there because of what he or she has accomplished. By contrast, many black students are present because, the theory goes, they offer educational opportunities to white students by virtue of their race. What they are said these days to offer is the “uncomfortable learning” experience that the students in Schapiro’s episode were unwilling to provide.

Schapiro responds that “the white students. . .didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.” Compared to my response — people shouldn’t have to eat lunch with folks they rather would not eat with — Schapiro’s jargon-driven locution is an odd one. He seems to be dehumanizing the black students, as if they are there for the benefit of white students but deserving of down time. It’s almost like he’s saying to white students “the exotic specimens will be displayed at the time of their and our choosing, not yours.”

Schapiro claims that “there are plenty of times and places to engage in uncomfortable learning.” But is this true in a setting where black students would rather not socialize with whites? If the blacks won’t even share a lunch table with whites, it seems doubtful that they will want to engage them on a more serious social level.

This leaves the classroom. But what if you’re a white engineering or math student. What “uncomfortable learning” will you obtain from blacks in class? There is no distinctively black perspective — uncomfortable or otherwise — on engineering or math.

The university may require all students to take some sort of black studies class. Such a class may indeed be uncomfortable. But does one class, which students may or may not take seriously, provide sufficient bang for the diversity buck?

The more fundamental question, of course, concerns the validity of the concept of “uncomfortable learning.” Why does Schapiro assume that interaction between black and white students is inherently uncomfortable? My daughter had a number of African-American friends at Dartmouth. Had she felt uncomfortable around these students, I doubt they would have become her friends. (I’m not denying that she and other white students have something to learn from black students, or vice versa; I’m only denying that one should expect the learning to be uncomfortable.)

There seems to be a contradiction in the thinking of college administrators. One the one hand, they assume that interactions between black and white students will be uncomfortable, and view this as central to the learning experience (at least for the whites). On the other hand, they are receptive to, and claim to be disturbed by, complaints from black students that their interactions with white students make them uncomfortable.

A university with a model that tries to build in racial discomfort shouldn’t be surprised if students of both races end up feeling uncomfortable.

Schapiro explains that “experts” tell him “students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable.” He calls this view “iron[ic].” I call it self-serving gibberish.

Schapiro seems to conflate being comfortable with being safe (he slips back and forth between the two words). All students need to feel safe in order to learn at an optimal level. But why assume, as Schapiro appears to do, that black students aren’t “safe” if they are seated next to white students at lunch or live in a dorm that isn’t exclusively black (Schapiro delivers a paean to Northwestern’s Black House)?

Once again, the leftist agenda results in a perversion of the language.

Schapiro apparently wants “uncomfortable learning” to occur under laboratory conditions. But a true, free institution of learning cannot be converted into a social engineering lab; nor, if it could, would the learning be salutary.

The likely lesson, instead, would be that black students are exotic specimens, many of whom can’t flourish under normal conditions. If this is what liberals believe, let them drop the jargon and say so.